Designing the Krishnamurti Centre

Professor Critchlow at the Centre

Keith’s father took him to listen to Krishnamurti give a talk in Wimbledon when he was 13 years old. Keith does not remember any specific content of this talk but remembers being very impressed with the way in which Krishnamurti dealt with quite aggressive opposition from some of the audience, this was a great lesson in dealing with negativity that Keith never forgot and this memory was retained throughout his own later career as a lecturer.

In the early 1980s, Keith learned that Krishnamurti was looking for an architect to design a study centre in Bramdean for his teaching, and here begins Keith’s memories:

Architectural drawing of the Centre

There had been at least six architects who had offered their services for the building of the study centre and ‘K’ suggested that they all worked together. However, he was told that architects did not work that way and the then staff at Brockwood advised ‘K’ to hold an architectural competition. It was this competition I was invited to participate in, however, I chose not to because Krishnaji had spoken very strongly in his writings against the principle of competition in our present century.

Reports came back to me that a) ‘K’ was very impressed that I refused to go into competition, and b) I was also asked to go to Brockwood Park School to give a talk on architecture to the students.
I don’t recall this event but was told later that I did give such a talk to a student audience and that Krishnaji and Frederick Grohe were at this talk. I heard later that ‘K’ said; “this man shows that he is getting to the roots of architecture”.

Eventually I was asked to go down to Brockwood to meet with ‘K’. This I did together with my then collaborator and architect Peter Gilbert. Having got to Brockwood I discovered it was only myself who would be interviewed. The place was in the sitting room of Krishnaji in the Big House which was part of Brockwood Park School. In the room were a group of people, all of whom I did not know but certainly Scott Forbes was there. I was invited to take a seat and proceeded to be asked a series of important questions as to what the centre would look like – very broad and wide ranging questions. Whenever I prepared myself to answer any of these questions, ‘K’ raised his hand and said each time “let us just think about this”.

After three quarters of an hour I was becoming increasingly frustrated by not being able to express my knowledge of architecture. Eventually ‘K’ leaned over toward me and patted me on the knee saying “Am I getting through?” I felt sure I was meant to respond to this friendly gesture, so I said “I think so”. ‘K’ then turned to the others in the room and spoke to them in French somehow knowing I would not understand what he was saying.

However, I was then dismissed and went to the site in the lower field to meet up with Peter Gilbert who was waiting there for me. We decided to look at the prospective site, check the trees and the movement of the Sun. After about half an hour of observations we decided there was no more we could do so we decided we should head for home and London. Just as we elected to do this, Scott Forbes came down from the School in relative haste – to announce that we had been appointed to build the Krishnamurti Centre. We were both very surprised to say the least. I had only said three words at the interview: “I think so”.

So Peter Gilbert and I decided that we would meander home and look at some of the traditional buildings in the local villages. This meant Barns, Churches, Cottages, Farm Buildings and outhouses. We very soon learned that there was a particular time honored way of construction in this area. One that went back many centuries and utilized the available local natural resources.

As the word tradition is so easily mis-used and misunderstood we decided to rename it ‘Building Wisdom’. This included massive wooden beams, beautiful red bricks, grey flint stones gathered from the local fields and clay tiled roofs. The ‘language’ was given to us. Why try to be clever and dismiss centuries of building wisdom? A so-called ‘modern building’ didn’t seem at all relevant – what could steel and concrete do for the beautiful natural building materials in this part of Hampshire?

Peter Gilbert was not ‘qualified’ to practice architecture in the UK, only the USA. I myself have never become associated with an architectural body of any kind. Having learned a great deal from my brother David Critchlow – who is a qualified architect – by living in the same room at home when we were both students together. Peter and I decided however, that it would be best to join up with another architectural firm who were well acquainted with Krishnamurti’s philosophy – and conveniently working with Triad Architects was one John Allen, a recently qualified architect who had been to more than one Krishnamurti talk at Brockwood Park in the recent past.

Keith giving his presentation during the Friends Weekend

I took John Allen with me to make a survey of the local traditional buildings of which there was a very good selection in the area around Bramdean. We worked on the principle of Traditional Building Wisdom, that is people building with the most readily available and usually abundant materials that nature offered. These included timber – larger and smaller – mother earth for brick and tile making, flint from the fields and sand turned to glass by high temperatures. The largest timbers were used locally as columns and crucks; that is bent from ground to roof support. Next came the trusses and members that held up the tiled roof’s and lesser timber became door and window frames. The Churches however were mostly built of cut stone – yet their vaulting often reminded us of the patterns that cruck building used in the domestic domain.

Keith giving his presentation during the Friends Weekend

The ancient Tythe Barns are the most impressive. There is one at Glastonbury, I would recommend a visit to the easy traveler. The next pre-occupation that we needed to concentrate on was the intrinsic nature of the study centre as a whole. My own convictions growing out of the study of many, many older Building Wisdom systems was that a ‘seriously intentioned’ building needs to follow, in some way, the human form. This was expressed in different ways in the world. ‘K’ expresses it beautifully and profoundly in his statement: You Are The World and The World is You. In previous times it has been expressed as the micro-cosmos reflecting the macro-cosmos. We being the smaller universe or world, the outer cosmos being the Sun, Moon and Stars. For myself, I have found that one could equally well place architecture as the mesocosmos; that is, reflecting both. On this basis I did a drawing of a human body sitting in what is generally known as the lotus position of legs folded up underneath the torso, with the hands resting on the knees. Which seemed appropriate for the present circumstance, the position of a person in study, contemplation or even meditation.

I was conversant with the words of Vitruvius who had summarized what he believed the ancient Greek canons of beauty were with respect to architecture. And these were all generated from an intimate understanding of the proportions of the human body. Apparently I learned many years later that ‘K’ was very pleased with my sketch of the building as a ‘body’ saying “this was the way we study in India” – or words to that effect. This I heard from Mary Zimbalist much later.

However it seemed correct and it fitted the corner site that we had been given with very large trees behind to the East and an orchard to the North with a beautiful open view across many fields to the South. The trees in the setting were magnificent. This was due to the very discriminate “tree collector” of the last century who had built up Brockwood Park as a sanctuary for a magnificent variety of trees from all over the world. He left the Grove here as an overwhelming experience in which to walk in silence.

Krishnamurti Centre basic layout

The requirements of the Study Centre were quite complex yet unified. This resulted in very careful thought as to where the different organic bodily parts should be, located. The whole building expresses the triangularity of both the site, the necessary functions and the symbolism of the triad of consciousness. The critical or focal corner of the building was the most easterly facing, nearest the tall trees of the East. This corner was the critical unification as well as generating aspect of the whole centre. “The point of departure” as it could be called is the place of the ‘quiet room’ where all who visit or work there can find the silence and peace. ‘K’ had said this room should be the fountain and the ‘fire’ of the rest of the whole building. Krishnaji only requested of me that it shouldn’t be too “chapel like”. From my perspective it represents sitting within ones own heart – the true place of silence. The walls are bare and white – following a suggestion by ‘K’ that one can gain special advantage by sitting looking at a bare white wall.

The Eightness of this quiet room reflects the heart and sets a diatomic scale to the rest of the building. Numbers as polygons in this building each have special values and meanings. They can be called the poetry of shape.

The quiet room can also be viewed as the axis of the spine of the sitting person. That is the axis from the root of the body to the crown. From here the building unfolds in spaces that are similar to the organs and the other features of the human body.

Closest in proximity from the unfolding from the quiet room is the library and the video room which holds ‘K’s teachings in written and ‘virtual living’ form as recorded talks. These, together with the ‘Krishnamurti Foundation’ that deals with the editing and distribution of all matters related to ‘K’s teaching, become the ‘heart’ of the building.

Section through the Quiet Room

As the building unfolds from the quiet room outward, it goes in two directions: immediately in front of one is the open court of four flowerbeds and a central white water fountain, and then it goes to the right where there is the administrative offices and entrance for visitors and then to the left where there is the kitchen and food storage and preparation for the ‘staying visitors’.

The central courtyard ‘garden’ is open to the sky and is a reflection of what is called in Eastern countries “The Eye of Heaven”. It has a Fourness of doors into it as well as the four ‘plant beds’. It is an image of the fourness of ‘our world’. The fountain says clearly that: “we are the world and the world is us”. The fountain also represents, at another level, the centre of ourselves as the balancing point between the outer world of Nature and our own inner world of intelligence. In ancient oriental symbolism it represents the ‘navel’ centre; the place of decision to go outward to the senses or to go inwards to intelligence.

From this ‘court’ we can experience on either side a surround of two large spacious rooms, the ‘arms’ of the building that together hold the ‘fire’ that is K’s inspiration, which leads up to the main single chimney stack above. This symbolises duality being resolved. These two spacious rooms are inspired by the local wisdom of barns as much as embracing the geometry of sacred form in their profiles. Each of these rooms is clearly supported by six tree trunks as columns that lead up to the curved supports that create the special space in the ceilings of each of the two rooms.

The ceiling in each case becomes two white triangular slopes from the apex, interrupted only by two inset windows in each ceiling in each room. These windows give views of the very special tree to the North in the dinning room and in the sitting room let in the glorious golden beams of the setting sun that filters through the trees to the west.

The fireplaces in each of these linked ‘rooms’ are well signaled with spreading arches. The imaginative bricklayers, in brick and edge-on tiles, beautifully built these fireplaces. Counting the elements in these is a worthwhile occupation for anyone at some time. The fireplaces have Scandinavian fires installed that use the wood fuel as effectively and economically as any wood-burning stove can.

Above each of the large curved fireplaces are two features in the angled chimney slopes. These are ‘clocks’ for all time, not just passing time. They were designed to reflect a very important aspect of ‘K’s teaching which as everybody who has read ‘K’s words know, is about the “ending of time”. This image is a ‘frozen’ clock with 60 intervals that reflect the recurrent nature of time similarly to the 60 intervals that signal the normal, angular measurement of space. Both use minutes and seconds.

This eternal ‘clock’ is specially designed to be seen from the centre of each room. In actuality the shape is elliptical but when viewed from the centre of the room it appears exactly circular. It reflects – I hope – the relationship between ‘actual time’ and ‘real time’, between passing time and the no time of ‘now’.

A 'Friends-Weekend' in progress in the Centre

The two fireplaces join into one chimney and are expressed on the outside of the building as a single stack. This chimney stack is made up of very carefully arranged bricks in the “golden series” of 1,1,2,3,5,8,13 and so forth, and the latter of these three numbers connect to our appreciation of musical scales: a) the pentatonic (5), b) the diatomic (8) and c) the chromatic (13) Nearly all musical harmonies internationally are related to these three scales.

Harmony and proportion are the two key factors in creating the unity of this building. This concept – of the studies that are necessary for all people in all ages – was attributed to Pythagoras in the west but equally can be found in China and India historically too. The four liberal Arts that were considered objective aspects of universality were Arithmetic, next came Geometry, followed by Harmony or Music and finally Astronomy or Cosmology. There are very simple ‘principles’ underlying each of these areas of study and as Plato was at pains to point out in a late “letter”. Any study as well as all studies must have unity as their objective, as Krishanji always insisted upon.

In a place of architecture – especially such as this one – the overall ‘unity’ of the building is the key factor, and differences of function need to overlap or blend into an organic whole. In this case we chose living timber in its many forms to achieve this. During my interview with ‘K’ he pointed to an image of a tree above the fireplace to say this is where ancestors are usually put, but for me the tree is my ancestor.

Timber is the exceptional gift of trees – curiously the wood of timber is the central part of the growing process of a tree that acts as a sort of structural skeletal core to holding up the growing and grown tree. It leaves beautiful evidence of how it flows as each year it renews its bark, which is actually the ‘living’ part of the whole process. The two large rooms adjoined by a coffee space between the two fireplaces display six trees each in column form. These massive ‘trees’ are cut into an octagonal pattern which reflects the triangle that governs the whole building i.e. 45° , 45° , 90° - join three corners of the octagonal shape and you have it.

Atop each of these octagonal columns are sets of decagonal (ten-fold) ‘capitals’. A capital is related to the head (capita) of the column. The decagonal nature demonstrates the change from a √2+1 system to a √5+1 proportion. That is from an octagonal proportion to a ‘golden’ proportion. From these capitals, specially shaped arms of timber reach up to the apex of the ceiling. These arms are specifically proportioned to express universally important arch forms. These particular arch forms are to be found elsewhere in such as the Temple of Heavens in Beijing as well as the west front of the Cathedral of Chartres and surprisingly enough in the Islamic Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This seemed to me to indicate how geometry can achieve a supra-orthodox position that seemed very much in keeping with Krishnaji’s teaching. Geometry, as with number, transcends the differences of ‘faith’, as does harmony and astronomy.

The structural imperatives of spanning a specific or large space have far more flexibility than only one solution. The great electricity pylons that cover so many of our fields today – in all countries – bear witness to this truth. Geometric forms have always carried symbolic value that is quite beyond the physical and structural calculations. One only has to make even a cursory look at the differences between the forms of vaulting in the great European Christian Cathedral’s to confirm this.

The height of these rooms is specifically designed to draw the attention of the inhabitants upward, into the space above and beyond the immediate social and cultural milieu of the functions of each room. Ceiling space is meditative space.

An aspect we have not yet covered is the positioning of the two ‘side wings’ of the building. These two ‘sides’ lead off from the main body of the building to express the thighs and legs of the seated body. These extensions are deliberately away from the main activities of the central part of the centre that enables a greater privacy per room and greater quietness. Each room is quite independent with a generous view toward the west over broad green lawns. Each has its own complete facilities of what is called ‘en suit’, a comfortable chair and a desk, and a beautiful view.

The function of these wings of the building is ‘rest’ like the legs folded up under the torso. Rest that enables sleep as well as attentiveness to any reading and note taking that is required on K’s teaching.

Due to the placement of the whole building in this particular position in Hampshire at this time we decided to advocate wood-burning fire places, this was due to the price and security of any other forms of fuel or ‘energy’ as they did not seem to be reliable in the context of the current political and governmental situation: certainly not in the long run. Brockwood Park has an abundance of not only beautiful but very productive trees – so this method of solar conversion by trees seemed the best way to go. As the trees die they offer their precious wood for fuel.

Now one area we have not yet come to is the very ‘front’ of the building that is predominantly glazed. This is the ‘sun’ room and designed specifically to open the vision to the very tallest and furthest aspects of the outer view i.e. land, trees and sky. Whereas the quiet room epitomizes the ‘inner’ world and the sun-room epitomizes the ‘outer’ world. The courtyard, which the halfway between these two inner and outer aspects of the whole body of the building becomes, is exactly the balancing position between the inner world of pure intelligence and the outer world of sensory experience.

The courtyard, like the navel in the body, becomes the place where one can consciously make the decision to turn inwards and upwards to the intellect or outward and downward to the senses and sensorial experience.

The fountain symbolizes the flow of truth as water from the words of Krishnaji. Krishnamurti, himself, told me when he was studying the drawings of the building that he could be “found in the library listening to the water of the fountain.”

The first fountain was made from the wrong stone – and cracked under the frost, so we had to find a better stone and redesign it so that it better fitted all the necessary functions – physical and symbolic. Fortunately, one of my talented students, Mark Mills, was available to cut the new central fountain.

It was decided that we should put ‘K’s words on the fountain as they spelled out our total responsibility to the world. Our great joy was to have the fountain finally installed; the very feature that ‘K’ himself spoke of listening to as he sat in the library. I would like to believe we have fulfilled ‘K’s wishes for the fountain.

Keith Critchlow
© Keith Critchlow, October 2016